Americans weren’t always addicted to buying things.Long before U.S. consumers racked up $11.3 trillion in aggregate debt, people used to save money for things they actually needed.
But in the age of plenty that followed World War I, corporations countered the threat of overproduction with a manipulative psychological strategy.
“We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture,” wrote Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
This conspiracy, enabled by new sophistication in advertising and supported by the government, was shockingly effective.
For more on the origins of consumer culture, we turn to the BBC’s excellent documentary, “Century Of Self.”
American corporations were rich and powerful at the end of WWI, but they were worried about the danger of overproduction. What if there people acquired enough goods and simply stopped buying?
Everything from shoes to cars was promoted in functional terms, meant to appeal to a rational consumer.
A new kind of advertising was key to this possible, and the pioneer in this field was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who showed corporations how to make people want things they didn't need by linking mass-produced goods to unconscious desires.
Bernays claims he was the first to tell car companies they could sell cars as a symbol of male sexuality.
He pioneered techniques like product placement and celebrity endorsement, relentlessly repeating the pro-consumption message.
The rise of consumerism helped to create a stock market boom—which Bernays encouraged by promoting the idea that ordinary people should buy shares.
Elected in 1928, President Herbert Hoover was the first politician to embrace the central role of consumerism.
But the rise of American consumerism would not be without an opposite effect. In late October 1929, while Hoover and the leaders of the business world were at a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lightbulb and the legacy of capitalism, stocks began to plunge — and within days would crash.
But consumerism wasn't done. The National Association of Manufacturers and other groups launched PR campaigns to promote the benefits of capitalism.
World War II jump-started American industry, and when it was all over the consumer movement was stronger than ever.
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